Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Review of a foodie's views on agribusiness: “An Economist Gets Lunch”

Tyler Cowen’s book “An Economist Gets Lunch” was added to my 2012 Christmas reading list for one simple reason: I have been trying to keep updated on agribusiness, given my role of an Enterprise Architect working with a multinational agribusiness fierm. Here is my initial reaction on the book.

The book covers two topics. It is predominantly a foodie’s observations of “finding good places to eat” while traveling, interspersed with tips on cooking at home. The secondary topic is a brief discourse on agri-business which is restricted to two chapters (#7 and  #8).
The first section of the book reaffirmed my empirical observation from travels across continents: how a variety of meats and fish feature predominantly in menus around the world. Restaurants in most western metropolises’ have begun to offer at least a few vegetarian friendly entrée, but still cater to diets that are largely meat based. As the author observes, many meat by-products – e.g lard – are also used for cooking “vegetarian” entrée.  The vegetarian in me found the descriptions of the techniques of barbeque and the like inscrutable but I still found the narrative gripping enough to read through those sections.

In the brief analysis of agri-business, Cowen makes a few arguments on spreading modern agribusiness to more parts of the world. He observes “For all the talk about India as a great economic power on the rise, most Indian farming is still done by hand on a small scale. … The result of all these restrictions is that agriculture remains the most backward major sector of India’s economy and the rate of investment in Indian agriculture is barely increasing.” While making the argument, the  author contrasts by giving high points to Mexican agribusiness when he muses :
“What are the real reasons why Mexican food can be so much better in Mexico than in United States? I think of Mexico as a country that straddles two food worlds in a very advantageous manner. They have enough technology and modernity to manage modern food supply networks, run good restaurants, and send fair amount of diversity the way of everyday foodie. At the same time, Mexico still is in the close touch with more artisanal methods of food production. The country has agribusiness, but it doesn’t only have agribusiness. “

The right-leaning economist in Mr. Cowen also hypothesizes on benefits of genetically modifying crops, observing how corn did not originally appear in nature without human intervention: “the breeding of corn occurred over generations and from genetic tests it is identified as coming 8,990 and 8,610 years before birth of Christ.” A gist of the author’s arguments
·         GMOs increase the supply of food, thereby lowering food prices and feeding the poor
·         One of the next green revolutions may come from the direction of what are called Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  
·         The underreported story that GMOs have considerable environmental benefits is overlooked.
·         GMOs may help limit global warming through other advances
·         Rich countries do not need GMOs but poor countries do
I have been following some of the arguments on global food-security and also the role of multinational agribusiness firms in “feeding the world” And most of the arguments, when one looks at from a rational economic angle make sense. However, what is intriguing is that most discussions on food and food security focus more on crops and grains and to a much lesser extent on animals and poultry. The fact is that food-grains are just another, albeit significant “ingredient” in meat production: After all, animal meat, poultry and fish are the last leg in the “feeding the world” value chain?

Other interesting reviews of the book: